Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia [week-ending 4 February 2022]

6 February 2022

By Simon Cosgrove

Simon is chair of Rights in Russia but writes these comments in a personal capacity and they may not necessarily represent the views of the organisation

Threat of War This week events again took place against the background of the threat of Russian use of military force against Ukraine. Amnesty International warned that ‘another escalation of the armed conflict in Ukraine will have devastating consequences for human rights in the region.’ Agnès Callamard, Amnesty’s Secretary General, said: ‘The threat of the use of military force by Russia is already affecting the human rights of millions of people in Ukraine and beyond. The consequences of actual military force are likely to be devastating.’ In Russia itself, a public statement by 2000 activists and intellectuals condemned the threat of military action by the country’s leaders.

Aleksei Navalny While a Navalny documentary documenting his recovery from Novichok poisoning in Germany won two medals at the Sundance Film Festival, in Russia a court dismissed the prisoner of conscience’s appeal against designation as a terrorist and extremist. Meanwhile, his associates continued to face persecution. Aleksandr Strukov, a photographer who worked with Navalny’s group in the past, was remanded in custody on charges of inciting hatred and online calls for terrorism, charges for which he may face up to 10 years in prison. Violetta Grudina, a Navalny activist from the city of Murmansk, fled Russia because of the campaign of intimidation against her. While a Russian appeal court cancelled the prison sentence of Andrei Borovikov, a former regional coordinator for Navalny, following his conviction last year for ‘distributing pornography’ by sharing a video by the German rock band Rammstein, the case will be retried and Borovikov was remanded in custody for a further three months.

Freedom of conscience In Krasnoyarsk, Anatoly Gorbunov, a Jehovah’s Witness was sentenced to six years in prison for organising the activities of an ‘extremist organization’ despite the recent ruling of the Supreme Court banning prosecutions of Jehovah’s Witnesses for joint worship.

Chechnya With apparent impunity, this week the Chechen politician and State Duma deputy Adam Delimkhanov issued a death threat against the family of human rights lawyer Abubakar Yangulbaev whose mother, Zarema Musaeva, was abducted in Nizhny Novgorod and taken to Chechnya last week. In an Instagram video Delimkhanov said: ‘We will pursue you until we cut off your heads and kill you.’ Amnesty International denounced Delimkhanov’s statement, calling on the Russian authorities to ‘immediately launch a credible, impartial and independent investigation into this blood-curdling death threat.’ Amnesty also said that ‘the Kremlin is either unwilling to rein in these types of human rights threats in Chechnya or is knowingly complicit in this despicable act.’ This was borne out when a subsequent meeting of President Putin with Ramzan Kadyrov seemed to show presidential support for the Chechen leader, rather than criticism of him. Indeed, Kadyrov himself recently called Novaya gazeta journalist Elena Milashina and Committee Against Torture director Igor Kalyapin ‘terrorists.’ Elena Milashina has since left Russia. In Nizhny Novgorod, Igor Kalyapin and his 84-year-old mother have been targets of a campaign of intimidation, with posters describing him as ‘defending terrorists’ and being a ‘foreign agent’ were put up outside his mother’s apartment.

Media The week it became known that Novaga gazeta journalist Elena Milashina had left Russia, the newspaper itself announced it had removed investigative materials about corruption among highly placed politicians, including President Putin, produced by Aleksei Navalny’s team from its website at the request of the authorities. In Germany, media regulators upheld an earlier ruling that the Russian state broadcaster RT must cease broadcasting its German-language programs in the country. In response, Russia expelled  Deutsche Well. The Committee to Protect Journalists in a statement said ‘Russia must stop using journalists as pieces in tit-for-tat games with Germany, and should allow employees of the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle to remain in the country and report freely.’ The Committee to Protect Journalists also criticised new medical regulations for foreign workers, saying that the Russian authorities should ‘ensure that international journalists can work freely and safely and are not singled-out by new medical regulations.’ The regulations require foreign citizens staying in Russia for over 30 days to undergo medical exams every three months and submit fingerprints and a biometric photo to authorities.

Surveillance The Russian government’s biometric database was also the focus of a report this week by Human Rights Watch. HRW criticised the authorities’ moves to further develop and implement the system as ‘a logical step in the march toward a police state.’ Anastasiia Kruope, the organisation’s Assistant Researcher for Europe and Central Asia, wrote: ‘Creating a centralized, government-controlled database comprising the biometric data of millions of people in Russia is highly unlikely to pass any reasonable test of its necessity in a democratic society, or a justified interference with privacy and related human rights.’

NGOs Memorial lodged an appeal against its liquidation that will be heard on 28 February, Russian NGOs presented a report on freedom of assembly to the Council of Europe. As part of a joint initiative with the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Meduza in a report noted that torture is endemic in Russia. In Moscow violent clashes took place between a group of Moscow residents protesting to save their local Troitsky Forest Park and workers sent to fell trees in line with an official plan to clear approximately five hectares of the forest to make room for construction. 

Crimea In Crimea prosecutors demanded a 12-year sentence against Crimean Tatar Arabic scholar and civic activist Vadim Bektemirov on charges that observers argue are based on flawed evidence and relate to no recognizable crime. In a trial that parallels that of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ismet Ibragimov is being prosecuted for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Muslim organization that despite not advocating violence was designated ‘terrorist’ by the Supreme Court in 2003. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison. An appeal court upheld a twelve year sentence handed down to the Ukrainian Kostiantyn Shyrinh on charges of espionage that have not been made public.

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